Why You Love Barrel Aging – and the Big Wood Festival
Barrel aging is most commonly used with wine and spirits such as whiskey and rum. There are many different types of wood that can be used for these barrels, most commonly oak (often French or American), sometimes chestnut, redwood, cedar…
The wood used for these vessels imparts flavor upon the fluid within. Vanillin (a primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean) and tannins (commonly found in red wine, “pucking flavors”) are natural flavors that come through. In the case of beer being aged in wood barrels, well… it’s both ancient and modern.
Of course, back in the day, wood barrels were used to store liquids, end of story. That’s what they had and that’s what they used. In some cases, mostly in Europe, this hasn’t changed. Many of your English, Scottish and Belgian breweries still use wood barrels just as they always have, for hundreds of years.
In the last several years, with the explosion of the American craft brewing culture, intrepid brewers have begun to return to these roots. Naturally, because this is America and we’re damn crafty…and a little thifty, we have, in many cases, used recycled barrels for our aging. Most often the barrels have been salvaged from wineries or distilleries, and thus have been infused with the flavors of the fluid that was previously aged in them.
Imbibing the beer aged in these wood barrels is a sublime experience to say the least. The smells and tastes that encase you are not only products of the brewmaster’s craft, but nature’s, the vintner’s and/or distiller’s of the past, and good old Father Time. And while we are speaking of his holiness, let’s please not downplay the importance of time, after all, aging is right there in the title.
What does aging do to beer? Mostly if dulls the bitterness, creating a much more balanced, often, sweeter and “rounder” flavor. A lot of the young harshness melts away, and what’s left is a fine, mature luxury for the heart and soul. The popularity of this process is increasing rapidly, and I must say, this brings me great enjoyment. I love barrel aged beer! I love the complexity, and the history. It’s distinguished, and I like that.
Now that I have (hopefully) whet your whistle for some serious barrel aged beer experiences, I must inform you of one of my absolute favorite Seattle beer events of the year… Brouwer’s Cafe Big Wood Fest.
On Thursday, December 3rd, there is no other place in the world you should be. Seriously people, this is something special! There is not very many bars on Earth that host events like this.
Nearly all of Brouwer’s 64 taps will be pouring barrel aged beers, many of which are extremely rare. This is the penultimate Brouwer’s fest. Not only the last fiscally, but in my opinion, the best. I know, standing up against a fest of all barlerywines, all IPAs and all sour beers is no meager task, but the proof is once again, right in the name.
It’s a fest of wood aged beer…of any genre. There’s barleywines, IPAs and sours to be found here, plus much more. It’s all the diversity that you would expect any day that you step into Brouwer’s, but kicked up a whole heap of notches. Pretty much every beer on the list is going to be worth trying, but of the preliminary list that has been posted on the Brouwer’s website, this is my list of “can’t misses”.
First and foremost, Lost Abbey Angel’s Share. Get this or be damned, that is, while it lasts. The name alone is just fantastic. Since wood barrels are made from a natural, organic material, and therefore imperfect, small amounts of water and alcohol are lost due to evaporation.
This portion is known as the “angel’s share”. Sometimes labeled a barleywine, sometimes generically strong ale, this brew was my number one pick of last years fest. To use the word “complex” would be to greatly discredit it’s brilliance.
My second highest recommendation would be for anything Russian River. Does the name Vinnie Cilurzo mean anything to you? Well for the love of god it should!
Vinnie is the legendary man behind Russian River Brewing Co. and has, no doubt, had an enormous hand in the growing popularity of barrel aged beers. Pretty much anything on tap this night from RR will be sour and aged in wine barrels from the pleniful wineries in their back yard of Sonoma County, CA.
Drink it up and relish the fact that the Brouwer’s owners have a great relationship with Vinnie (RR on tap is rare in WA). I very much doubt there is any Deviation (Bottleworks 9th Anniversary) left, but if by some strange twist of fate another barrel was uncovered in the depths of Brouwer’s cellar, get 2 and thank me in the morning. Easily in my top 5 beers of all time!
Anything by Hair of the Dog will be sure to please you, and it’s always rare to see on tap. Firestone Walker, yes please. Cascade Brewing, I’ll have another. Southern Tier, Avery… I’m salivating. And you all know, timperial stout loves, loves, loves his imperial stouts. Abyss, Entire, Ivan the Terrible, hopefully some Yeti… obviously.
Beer Blotter will see you there!